By Wendy M. Grossman
(June 16, 2014) BIRMINGHAM – Graham Kimpton is looking somewhat harassed. Not surprising; it’s quarter-finals day at Queen’s and he’s the grounds manager. The buzz around the world may all be about Wimbledon but in England it’s widely held that the Queen’s Club grass courts are the best in the world.
“We’ve got lots of traditional practices that we use,” he says, when asked how he takes care of the club’s ten grass courts. (In all, it has 33 that include representatives of every major surface the game is played on.)
“Traditional” means more to Kimpton than just avoiding chemicals as much as possible: his father came to manage the club’s grounds in 1966, and Kimpton joined him in 1984. They worked here together until about five years ago. “So we’re very – I wouldn’t say old-fashioned but traditional – in the approach that we take. It’s attention to detail. That’s what we do.” He is grateful, he says, to the backing and support he gets from the club.
These details include everything from the mix of grass cultivars, the make-up of the soil, and the design of fertilizer programs to the type of mower they use. An example of the level of detail: the mower’s width is chosen so that the stripes you get from mowing first in one direction and then in the other fit perfectly into the lines that mark out the court.
“The biggest difference between ourselves and All-England is the grass seed mixture.”
The All-England Club’s decision a few years ago to switch to 100 percent rye grass made headlines. Queen’s is still using the same mix it’s used for many years. It’s close to what Wimbledon used in 1991, when I interviewed the head groundsman there: 50 percent rye; 45 percent distributed between two kinds of fescue, and 5 percent bent grass.
“It’s a real sort of traditional tennis mix,” Kimpton says.
Each type of grass brings something different to the mix. Rye is hard-wearing, an obviously important quality. But, Kimpton says, it’s tufted, meaning it grows straight up, making it hard to get the density that Kimpton believes plays best. The fescues, which are curly and grow laterally as well as vertically, fill in the gaps and also block weed grass from growing – but fescues by themselves are too fine.
One reason for the difference is that at the end of the Championships, when play has finished on Centre Court, “They plane the whole lot off and they start again.” By contrast, he says, at the end of the Queen’s Club tournament after a few weeks rest and some rain the courts are ready to go again. “So I don’t want to take all of the good stuff out just to get rid of a little bit of bad stuff.”
While the wear pattern on the courts has certainly changed – look at a 20th century grass-court match sometime and you’ll see the same sand along the baseline but a second worn area up the T to a big bare patch in front of the net – he says the mix has held up well to the many changes in the game. Connors, in his day, used to try to deliberately drop the ball onto the bare spot near the net because the bounce was so unpredictable.
The biggest challenge for Kimpton is that trying to balance the 51-weeks-a-year needs of the club’s 2,000 tennis-playing members against the demands of running a world-class tournament on the remaining week. “To get that week as good as you want does cut into the members’ time.”
Watching his perfect courts wear away doesn’t bother him. “People say, doesn’t that break your heart? “After the first day of practice and you see all it’s done.” He shrugs. “It keeps me in my job.”
People may debate climate change, but Kimpton notes that England’s winters have gotten noticeably milder. “We don’t have those long, cold, frosty periods.” He wishes they’d come back: those low temperatures help kill bugs.
A tidbit for fans to debate: the players constantly – even this week – say that the grass courts have been deliberately slowed over the years in response to those many 1990s grass-court finals between big servers like Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic that featured no rallies longer than five shots. Kimpton says not.
“We haven’t done anything. We relaid Centre Court in 1993 and we just put some heavier clay soil on there. But Sampras and all those guys, they were around for a lot longer after that. So we haven’t really done anything.”
Instead, Kimpton says, what’s changed is the ball. “I spoke to Todd Woodbridge, and he said that every year he won Wimbledon he kept the ball. If you look at the first time he won it to the last time he won it the last ball is a lot bigger, a lot fluffier than the first ball. They move slower.” In the ITF’s annual speed tests, there’s little difference.